There's a lot of basketball to be played before the NCAA tournament rolls around in March, but one month into the 2022-23 women's college basketball season, we have a much better sense of which teams are contenders, pretenders or somewhere in between.
As expected, No. 1 South Carolina and No. 2 Stanford appear to be a cut above the rest, but after that it's anyone's guess as to who else might advance to the Final Four in Dallas. Upsets (including several at the hands of previously unranked teams), fluidity in the polls and trajectory-changing absences (ie. Azzi Fudd, Grace Berger, Rickea Jackson and Tamari Key) have made this season unpredictable to date. Only time will tell whether some of the sport's most storied teams will make deep runs into April, or if newer blood or revamped programs -- say Indiana or Ohio State or Niele Ivey's Notre Dame -- will turn some heads this spring.
ESPN.com's M.A. Voepel, Alexa Philippou and Charlie Creme discuss the biggest surprises and disappointments of this young season, share their updated predictions and assess whether the battle for player of the year has developed into a three-player race.
What has been the biggest surprise -- good or bad -- of the season so far?
Philippou: I've been surprised Texas, Tennessee and Louisville have struggled so mightily, all dropping out of the Associated Press poll over the past few weeks despite being ranked in the preseason top 10. It's the first time in at least two decades that so many preseason top-10 teams have dropped to being unranked by the season's fifth poll. And this week marked the first time since the inaugural AP poll in 1976 that all three programs -- blue bloods in the sport -- were left out of the top 25.
Following a 69-39 win over Chattanooga, Jillian Hollingshead says the Lady Vols' focus is to tighten up their defense with conference play ahead.
Creme: The flip side to the massive disappointments Alexa highlighted are teams that have been better than expected. We all thought Ohio State would be good, but in the top five before the start of final exams? That's surprising.
Quietly, Arkansas started 10-0. With four players averaging double-figure scoring and the growing emergence of UConn transfer Saylor Poffenbarger, the Razorbacks look like the third-best team in the SEC.
Voepel: Tennessee is the biggest surprise. Sure, the Lady Vols had to incorporate transfers, but almost everyone does now. With Jackson, a top transfer from Mississippi State, currently not playing because of a coach's decision and Key missing Tuesday's victory over Chattanooga for what was described as medical reasons -- plus other injuries -- the Lady Vols have a lot of questions. And even when all their top players were on the floor, they didn't seem cohesive. That could be attributed initially to a tough early schedule, but it now seems like more than that. (Editor's note: Tennessee announced Thursday, after this story was published, that Key will miss the remainder of the 2022-23 season after blood clots were discovered in her lungs.)
What preseason prediction would you like to do over?
Louisville Cardinals vs. Middle Tennessee Lady Raiders: Full Highlights
Creme: I really whiffed on the Longhorns. I thought this was Vic Schaeffer's best team since his Mississippi State Bulldogs reached the 2018 national title game. This looked like a Final Four team to me, and I was the only one who picked Texas to win the Big 12.
However, it could still happen. Big 12 play hasn't started yet, and most of what has plagued the Longhorns -- Rori Harmon's early foot injury, shooting woes, the lack of offensive chemistry, shockingly mediocre rebounding -- can all get better. This isn't likely a Final Four team, but a conference championship is still possible in a Big 12 with no dominant team.
Voepel: Kellie Harper was my coach of the year pick, and that's not going to happen unless somehow Tennessee has a massive turnaround and wins the SEC. However, if she can pull the Lady Vols back into the rankings with the various issues they've been dealing with, she will have done a good job.
Philippou: I, too, had really high expectations for Tennessee. But my pick for Louisville to win the ACC is not looking too good right now. Although Jeff Walz could turn his team around in the coming months, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and NC State are all currently ranked in the top 10, and one of those programs seems more poised to earn the league crown this year. The Cardinals' offense has been anemic at times, and they haven't come out with the same defensive toughness typical of Louisville basketball.
UConn already overcame a lot of injuries and uncertainty. Having just lost their first game, and with Azzi Fudd for 3-6 weeks, are the Huskies NCAA title contenders?
Philippou: With a healthy Fudd, they can still win it all. The Huskies aren't without their flaws, but if Fudd and the rest of the team can stay healthy (that would also mean Dorka Juhász is back in the fold and impactful), it would be foolish to count them out. The legitimate contenders at this point are South Carolina, Stanford and a healthy UConn.
Creme: Even in the worst-case scenario -- six weeks on the sidelines -- Fudd is expected to return in mid-January. Barring anything else unforeseen, the timing would allow the Huskies to be back to their start-of-the-season lineup in plenty of time before the season's stretch run. The chemistry that UConn established so quickly early this season should reform quickly enough to put the Huskies back in the hunt for a 15th consecutive Final Four.
The game against South Carolina on Feb. 5 is the litmus test. Fudd would be back a minimum of two weeks by the time the Gamecocks head to Hartford. The rust should be gone. If UConn competes against the defending champs and current No. 1 team in the nation, then the Huskies would have to be on the short list of teams that could win the national championship.
Voepel: Fudd has been terrific, but the Huskies have a lot of other talent. Considering the way they always seem to be playing their best in March, they remain a perennial championship contender.
What conference race are you most looking forward to seeing? And are the preseason favorites still the top contenders?
Creme: The ACC seemed to be the clear answer as the most compelling conference race in the preseason, but with Louisville's dreadful first month, the Big Ten has now claimed that distinction. Michigan is much better than anticipated, and with Iowa playing back to the pack a bit, this is now a five-team race. Ohio State and Indiana, not the Hawkeyes, are now contending for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, although Iowa still has the most explosive offense in the league, if not the country. Maryland still lacks consistency, but the Terps were able to win at Notre Dame. That version of Maryland could win the Big Ten, too.
With Iowa's Caitlin Clark, Maryland's Diamond Miller, Ohio State's Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell and Michigan's Leigha Brown -- and Berger, if she returns to Indiana healthy -- the Big Ten is also loaded with exceptional guard play.
Taylor Mikesell scores a game-high 26 points as No. 4 Ohio State defeats No. 18 Louisville.
Philippou: Even with Louisville's subpar start to the season, the ACC is intriguing. Maybe most folks would pick Notre Dame to win the conference at this point, but it'll likely be competitive once we get to league play, and it would be pretty surprising if any one team escaped undefeated or with just one loss. UNC getting demolished by Indiana without Berger wasn't great, but the Tar Heels are one team we didn't mention in our preseason predictions that has emerged as a clear contender.
And while I'd still pick Stanford to win the Pac-12, the UCLA Bruins have impressed through the first month, so all eyes will be on the Cardinal-Bruins matchups Jan. 13 and Feb. 20. And perhaps even Oregon, Utah and Arizona could make things interesting.
Voepel: The Big Ten's only women's Final Four team since Michigan State lost the championship game in 2005 is Maryland in 2015, which was the Terps' first year in the league after leaving the ACC. But the Big Ten has been knocking at the Final Four door the past few years, with Iowa (2019), Indiana (2021) and Michigan (2022) as recent Elite Eight teams. It's exciting that the Big Ten has Final Four contenders again this season along with several conference showdowns we're eagerly anticipating.
But what about the Big 12 race? Iowa State (6-2), the preseason favorite, has a different threat this season in center Stephanie Soares, an NAIA transfer who has been impressive in her Division I debut. However, she and the rest of the No. 10 Cyclones struggled offensively and were held 30 points below their scoring average in Wednesday's 70-57 loss at No. 16 Iowa.
As mentioned above, Texas' early struggles could still be fixed. Baylor has ruled the league for the past decade-plus, but with graduation and injuries -- top transfer Aijha Blackwell hasn't played since Nov. 15 -- the No. 19 Bears (7-2) will be challenged to keep that going.
No. 23 Oklahoma has only one loss, 124-78 at Utah. It was its second game in two days at altitude -- the Sooners had won the night before at BYU -- and OU's style leaves it vulnerable on defense. So the loss was perhaps not as stunning as the score alone suggests.
Kansas (7-0), which made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 last season, is the Big 12's unbeaten team and have a key matchup at Arizona on Thursday. No. 24 Kansas State, Texas Tech and West Virginia each have just one loss, and it should be competitive to see which teams get the league's top four spots.
Who has been the best player in the country up to this point?
Creme: If I voted today and she hadn't just gotten hurt, Fudd would be my choice. This is still Aliyah Boston's award to lose, but Fudd has delivered in every possible way against the nation's best schedule, with a pair of 32-point games and a 20.6 PPG average. But Fudd's knee injury is going to change her fortunes, and unless she comes back sooner than expected, Fudd likely won't win the award.
That takes us back to a two-player race between Boston and Clark, with Angel Reese as a possible outside contender if her 23.1 PPG and 14.2 RPG translate when LSU's schedule gets more challenging.
Statistically, Boston hasn't been as good as she was a year ago. In fact, her points per game (12.9) is four points below her average last season. However, she remains the best player on the best team, with defensive influence that while hard to quantify this early in the season, is clearly exceptional. She gets my vote.
Aliyah Boston lays it in to give South Carolina the lead against Memphis.
Voepel: It takes a lot to upend the incumbent on the No. 1 team, so Boston still is my top choice, with Clark second and Fudd third. Just like last year, it's hard to compare Boston and Clark because they play such different positions. Clark is an electric guard who has the ball in her hands a lot, and when watching Iowa you can't take your eyes off her as a scorer or playmaker. Boston as a post player dominates offensively and defensively, even if her stats aren't always eye-popping.
If Fudd is out closer to the three-week mark, she will remain in the national player of the year race. Reese has to prove herself in SEC games, and Olivia Miles might also be an outside contender if Notre Dame wins the ACC. But realistically, it likely still comes down to Boston and Clark.
Philippou: Pre-injury, I thought Fudd might have had a more compelling case over Boston -- not because Boston hasn't been excellent; she has -- because South Carolina has shown even more depth this season compared to last, and other players around Boston are contributing more to keep them winning. Fudd, on the other hand, was the major catalyst for UConn's three top-10 wins. And while Caitlin Clark continues to do Caitlin Clark things, it's tough to see her winning player of the year if Iowa isn't able to beat top competition.
What should we take away from the NCAA's NET rankings, which made their debut this week?
Creme: That the NCAA is releasing NET rankings this early in the season and on a daily basis for the second consecutive year is great. The truth is, these are the only rankings that matter. The AP and coaches polls are nice, but are purely a collection of opinions. The NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) is based on data and, most importantly, is the foundation for the NCAA selection committee's process. It incorporates wins and losses, the strength of opponents, where the game was played and metrics for offensive and defensive efficiency.
🏀NCAA NET Rankings🏀— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessWBB) December 5, 2022
Through Games Dec. 04, 2022
1. South Carolina
7. NC State
8. Virginia Tech
9. Notre Dame
FULL RANKINGS: https://t.co/Ok3623lNie pic.twitter.com/L0T7hYCh99
With every team playing on average 8-10 games, the sample for the NET is still relatively small. These numbers will still move quite a bit. Don't necessarily lock in to what you see today.
These are the rankings to follow, though. While they are officially just one of 14 pieces of criteria the selection committee uses and not the end-all, be-all for choosing and seeding the teams, the NET rankings are how other criteria, like significant wins, bad losses and strength of schedule, are determined.
While Ohio State is ranked No. 3 in the AP poll this week, it would be far more significant toward an NCAA tournament seed if the Buckeyes remain 15th in the NET come March like they are today.
Voepel: As is the case with the RPI, the NET rankings aren't always going to meet fans' eye tests. And that's OK. The polls and power rankings fuel weekly discussions about teams, which is part of following any season. But as Charlie said, the NET rankings are the key tool for the NCAA selection committee. As we get deeper into the season, they likely will more closely reflect most followers' general opinions about teams. Ultimately, they are about "the math," with a formula that much thought was put into by the stakeholders in college hoops.